In the minds of many, one of the most memorable legacies of South Korea’s outgoing President Moon Jae-in is the changed topography of the nation’s military. He initiated and oversaw retrofits of major weapons systems, improvements to soldiers’ livelihood, and South Korea’s transformation into a major arms exporter. Under the Moon administration, South Korea’s defense budget annually increased by an average of seven percent each year, standing at $44 billion as of 2022. The cash influx has enabled enhanced procurement and deployment of munitions, streamlined military-civilian cooperation, augmented posture against hybrid warfare, and the incubation of network-based “smart units.”
Above all, South Korea’s bolstered arms exports under Moon will leave an enduring impact on the country’s economy and foreign policy. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the quinquennial value of South Korea’s military export has more than tripled from $1.2 billion (2011-2015) to $3.8 billion (2016-2020; Moon took office in May 2017). Based on the single year of 2020, for which the latest figures can be collated, the volume of South Korea’s defense exports ranked sixth in the world.
The export growth owes its success in large part to Moon’s effort to modernize weapons systems and maximize their deployment within South Korea. The domestic defense market has been flushed with cutting-edge equipment from both foreign and domestic suppliers, and excess capacity can now be marketed abroad.
For instance, in late 2020 the army reached the initial quota of more than a thousand K9 Thunders, a self-propelled howitzer manufactured by Hanwha Defense, a South Korean defense powerhouse. With domestic demand sated, the K9 has become the crown jewel of South Korea’s military exports. Starting from 2001, the howitzer has gradually come to prominence in numerous countries spanning half the globe. In December 2021, it made history by becoming the first Asian model to enter the Australian defense market, which has traditionally been tightly sealed within the Anglophone nations. South Korea then scored a record sale of $1.7 billion worth of K9s to Egypt in February 2022, also the first time South Korea’s defense industry gained a foothold in the African continent. Now the K9 takes up more than half of the global market for self-propelled artillery.
Coinciding with the need for South Korea to find markets abroad, demand is also rising due to increasingly charged global geopolitics. The Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade identified the reason for Poland’s acquisition of the K9 in 2014 as arising from the regional military tension following Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Finland and Norway followed suit in 2017, with Estonia being the latest addition to the list of countries importing the howitzer to fend off a potential land invasion. Given the K9’s speed, efficiency, and relatively cheaper price tag, NATO members are likely to crank up their imports in light of the renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine this year.
Similar strategic calculations were behind India’s and Australia’s decision to procure the K9. Facing border disputes with Pakistan and China, India has awakened to the need for speedier and longer-ranged howitzers to support its forces in the frontline, and New Delhi purchased the K9 in 2017. Likewise, as a member of the Quad alliance designed to stymie Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific, Australia delineated its plan to beef up all the military branches for future contingencies. The eventual manufacture and deployment of 30 K9s and accompanying ammunition resupply vehicles will form the backbone of the newly envisaged land combat capability “to strike in contested environments.”
The Middle East has turned to South Korea as well. Ideological and political rivalries pitted along the Sunni-Shia divide have fanned regional upheaval and intensified bombing. Embroiled in Yemen’s civil war, Saudi Arabia decided in March 2022 to import Hanwha’s anti-aircraft defense system worth almost $1 billion. This is South Korea’s third major deal in the Middle East this year, following the K9 sales to Egypt and the UAE’s purchase of a panoply of Korean surface-to-air missile interceptors pegged at around $4 billion.
Alongside the geopolitical turmoil, Western sanctions against Russia will soon become another factor in the swelling demand for South Korean alternatives. Russia’s deepening estrangement from the indignant liberal bloc portends the world’s decoupling from the aggressor’s military industry. Lately, the United States has been lambasting India for its abstention from denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its continuing reliance on Russian weaponry. Considering that Russian munitions comprise almost 70 percent of India’s defense, it would be a long, arduous process for the latter to wean itself off Russian technology. For all its strategic juggling of Russia and the United States to constrain China, it will not be long before reliance on Russian technology will become a sticking point for India. Other countries will take note and think twice when it comes to choosing the source for their next batch of military supplies. South Korea stands poised to help provide an alternative to Russia.
While South Korea’s defense industry saw major gains under Moon, there is good reason to expect the trend to continue under President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol from the conservative People Power Party. There are two major incentives for any president to tap the expanding demand for South Korean military products. The first is the potential for further economic expansion of South Korea’s domestic firms. Take the K9’s success story, for instance. Clustered around the city of Changwon on the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula, approximately 1,000 firms are engaged in the production of components for the K9 on subcontract. When the government announced in 2021 that it would replace the German-made engines used in the K9 with homegrown counterparts, the Changwon Industry Promotion Agency estimated that the number of subcontractors related to the engine manufacturing alone would reach 350.
The other incentive lies in strengthening international collaboration. Arms deals ride in tandem with technology sharing, combined military training, and closer alignment of foreign policy through stronger mutual trust. The deal with Australia, for instance, came with South Korea’s future construction of manufacturing plants in Geelong, a short distance from Melbourne. Meanwhile, South Korea promised to offer Egypt military cooperation such as operability training and maintenance. In March 2022, the UAE’s defense minister paid a visit to his Korean counterpart in Seoul to discuss expanding cooperation in the arms industry and defense collaboration in the future. Deals of these sorts could all come in handy for Yoon, who desires to uplift his country to the status of “a global pivotal state” grounded in “substantial cooperation.”
Yoon has made abundantly clear his willingness to incorporate South Korea into the global U.S. missile defense network, in addition to the U.S. THAAD anti-ballistic missile system already installed in the country. Starkly different from Moon’s policy of straddling between the United States and China in order to safeguard both security and economic interests, Yoon prioritizes turning back the clock to the time when nothing could weaken South Korea’s commitment to the U.S. This includes overcoming historical qualms about forming a military alliance with Japan, a brutal former colonizer with whom South Korea still eschews military association, and showing the will to preemptively strike North Korea’s missile launch sites.
Yoon’s election as the next president places South Korea in lockstep with the U.S. security stance in the Indo-Pacific. Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee hearing in March 2022, Paul LaCamera, the commander of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, expressed the U.S. interest in “trying to get the Koreans off the peninsula to do some additional training” with Australia and Japan, and in acquiring substantial missile capability “to get into his [Kim Jong Un’s] system.” Now that the United States found a staunch ally in Yoon, the latter would be inclined to utilize South Korea’s arms export to cement geopolitical alignment and assert a tougher presence.
Apart from the K9, South Korea has developed its own submarine-launched ballistic missiles and is now working on a next-generation low-altitude missile interceptor, Cheongung-III, vaunted as being far superior to Israel’s Iron Dome. Although commenced with an eye to establishing strategic autonomy from the U.S. missile defense system, these advances would also serve Yoon’s hope for active engagement with foreign allies through future arms deals.
Moon and Yoon have vastly different foreign policy outlooks. Yet Moon laid the groundwork for his successor to reconfigure the legacy of reinvigorated arms exports, and we are likely to see continuity in the military industry.